Snowmobiling in West Yellowstone, 2021

Snowmobiling may not be on your bucket list, but visiting Yellowstone National Park in the winter ought to be. There is no other winter wonderland like it, where the steam from the geysers and hot pools coat the surrounding trees with layer upon layer of crystal clear ice, a world of hoar frost. If you don't want to join a snowmobile tour to visit, you can ride in a heated snow coach. Tours go mainly to the Old Faithful area with stops along the way. But other tours, including private guiding, are available in limited quantities. In fact all tours into Yellowstone in the winter are very limited, but especially the snowmobile tour permits. This year even calling 6 weeks ahead was not enough. The other down side is the weather. The day you have signed up for could be super cold or much worse, snowing heavily.

We lived in Missoula, Montana, for thirteen years and bought what I called a tree-hugging snowmobile in 2003. It was at the end of the season, an ex-rental on March 1st, a Ski Doo Grand Touring two-up (two seat) and we bought saddle bags and carried with us tent, sleeping bags, and other emergency gear—even a snow winch and satellite locator. After we retired, the snowmobile was in storage for 7 years, then out again for two winters towed behind our Bigfoot truck camper. We trail-rode Montana, Idaho and Wyoming—and loved almost all of it. But after selling it in 2016, I really wanted to get out again.

Now in our mid 70s, we needed to ride where the trails are well groomed, there are lots of folks to help if you get stuck, cell service is available, and there are interesting, well marked trails to explore. West Yellowstone checks all the boxes. We first debated going in January but covid 19 was out of control everywhere, so we hunkered down in an RV park in San Diego. After getting both our vaccine doses, we decided on the first week of March. The weather looked good enough to go ahead and reserve our rental snowmobiles. All the places required 14 days for cancellations, so a financial commitment is required. We left our camper near San Diego at a repair dealer. As luck would have it, our transmission failed a day before we planned to leave for Las Vegas. So instead of renting a car in Vegas, as planned, we rented a Jeep Compass is Escondido. We had reserved a medium SUV and found that no one would promise 4 wheel or even all wheel drive. When we arrived at Avis in Escondido, the Jeep with full time 4 wheel drive was available. The roads were expected to be clear all the way, but we appreciated knowing that 4 wheel drive was there if we needed it. Our plan had always been to hunker down in a motel anyway if the weather turned bad. After a long two day drive we arrived at the Day's Inn in West Yellowstone. We had run into about an inch of snow in Provo the first night, but the roads melted out quickly the next morning.

We rented Tuesday and Thursday from High Mark and Friday from Yellowstone Adventures. We had older 900 Ace Ski Doos the first 2 days and a new 600 Ace on Friday. We rented our helmets from High Mark for all 3 days as they had the double face shield that we preferred. Helmet rentals range from $8 to $10 a day per person. Full gear, boots, snowsuit, gloves, helmet etc. run $25 to $35 a day. The sleds were $149 to $169 plus $15 to $25 for liability insurance. At High Mark we had to fill the gas tank at the end of the day. At Yellowstone a tank of gas was included. I don't like to drive, so one sled was plenty for us. These are trail riding sleds only. If you want to go off trail you absolutely need to know what you are doing or go with a guide who can teach you. Off trail also means renting a sled for each person as double riding makes them too heavy. If you rent your outer wear, you will still need to have long underwear or thick tight type pants, a thin and heavy wool socks, light weight gloves and a jacket or pullover in polartec or wool—cotton kills. If you have water resistant pants and rain jacket you could wear them over your own jacket with heavy hiking boots. But if weather is in the teens you probably should rent your outerwear. The passenger will also want the little hot-hands packs for their toes. The driver's toes are heated by the engine and both driver and passenger have heated hand warmers on all the machines. Top of the line models even have heated seats. But, really, you will be surprised at how warm you are if the sun is out and it is above 20.

We had a great time with no problems. Day's Inn was very clean with fridge and microwave, and a full cooked breakfast in the restaurant included, also an indoor heated pool and 2 hot tubs. They also have a package deal with one of the snowmobile rental companies that you should check out. We did most of the trails in the area. Two Top is our favorite, along with the long drive down the valley to Mesa Falls. Lion's Head is great but don't do it your first day as there are some steep spots.

If you want to go next year, here are my recommendations. If you haven't snowmobiled before spend your first day on the guided tour into Yellowstone. Rent at least two days more for independent riding and take a day off between each rental—your back will thank you. If you can't do the first day with the guide into Yellowstone then spend some time driving around town to get used to the machine. West Yellowstone clears the two main roads and keeps snow on the other roads so you can easily ride anywhere in town. Rent a machine with reverse but be very careful backing up on the trail. It is easy to dig yourself into the snow and you won't be able to get out with out help. Be sure to get two copies of the free trail map. Take a day pack and bungees to hold it on the back of the machine. We carried 2 thermoses, water bottle, lunch snacks, toilet paper kit, first aid, extra gloves and socks, emergency bivy sack. I also brought my hiking poles. The doors to the rest rooms (few and far between) are down about 4 feet into the snow (it's deep) and getting up and down is slippery. If you have to go to the bathroom out on the trail, stay on the trail or you will sink hip deep with your first step. In other words, especially for the ladies, don't drink too much and take some Aleve or whatever before leaving. Yes, you are sitting all day, but like riding a horse, you are using all kinds of muscles you normally don't know you have.

If you want to bring your RV be equipped to drive in snow and operate dry or able to keep things from freezing in below zero temperatures—which are quite common at night. The Brandin' Iron Motel has a small RV parking area with electric, only in winter. It is right in town. There is NO boondocking in town but you can park overnight in the various out-of-town snowmobile parking lots.

The best place to fly into is probably Salt Lake or Idaho Falls, then rent a car. You can fly into Bozeman but the road between there and West Yellowstone is extremely dangerous in icy or snowy conditions. It is lined for 90 miles in white crosses. You can also get into Yellowstone on a tour from the south entrance through Jackson. This might be a good choice if you want to also ski—but it is a ski resort town and therefore extremely expensive. Also there is not the abundance of fantastic snowmobile trails that you can ride on your own. It is a 65 mile van ride to take to the start of the Yellowstone snowmobile tour, so it makes for a long and expensive day--$600 for one sled with passenger.

We are hopeful to go back in 3 years or so and get into Yellowstone National Park proper. Good luck with your trip and contact me if you have further questions. Vicki